Navigating the College Planning Process in the U.S.

A Quick College Planning Guide with Resources for Parents Unfamiliar with the American School System.


The journey to college is often filled with excitement, anticipation, and sometimes, a dash of confusion, especially for parents who are unfamiliar with the American school system. If you’re one such parent, fret not!

college planning guide for parents

This guide will walk you through the essential steps of the college planning process in the U.S. and provide resources to make this journey smoother.

Understanding the Basics

The application requirements for college entrance is a bit complicated. School counselors are often the experts in this area. Nevertheless, there are some standard requirements that students must adhere to when applying for college. These include a GPA, standardized tests, and an application process.

The specific requirements for each of these vary depending on the college or university. For example, some colleges may require a higher GPA than others. Others may require a certain level of standardized tests. The application process may also vary depending on the college you are applying for.

  1. Grades and GPA: In the U.S., high school students are graded on a GPA (Grade Point Average) scale, typically ranging from 0 to 4.0. This average is an essential factor in college admissions. In some states, a GPA is used to award financial assistance. The higher the GPA the more a college may want to offer acceptance or financial help.
  2. Standardized Tests: Most colleges require scores from standardized tests like the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) or ACT (American College Testing). These scores, along with GPA, extracurricular activities, and other factors, are considered during the admissions process. The scores in standardized tests help determine college entrance and acceptance. Some schools have moved away from using standardized tests but may are still interested in using these results.
  3. Application Process: Students typically apply to colleges during the fall of their senior year in high school. Applications often require personal essays, recommendation letters, transcripts, and test scores. The application process may vary slightly for undocumented immigrants. Refer to the undocumented immigrant article to understand the college application process when you do not have a social security number.

Steps to College Planning

The following college planning guide for parents is just the basics of college planning. There are dedicated online resources, books, and coaches that focus on college guidance and planning. My post is just a snapshot of college planning with resources you can access.

  1. Start Early: Begin the college planning process during your child’s junior year (11th grade) or even sooner. This gives you ample time to research colleges, understand financial aid options, and prepare for standardized tests.
  2. Research Colleges: Understand what your child wants from their college experience. Are they looking for a large university or a smaller college? Are they interested in Urban or rural settings? Will your family prefer Public or private? Consider all of these things to decide and eventually narrow your search.
  3. Visit Campuses: If possible, visit a few college campuses. This will give you and your child a feel for different college environments. A college visit will also give you an idea of what that college is like, how far it may be, and the environment.
  4. Financial Planning: Investigate scholarships, grants, and loan options. The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is a vital form to fill out for financial aid. This form provides colleges an overview of your family’s financial status which determines how much financial assistance you will get. The FAFSA is also used to determine loan calculations and qualifications.
  5. Stay Organized: Keep track of application deadlines, required documents, and other essentials. Every college may have different requirements. Use our free college tracking and checklist to begin your planning.

Online Resources for Parents

The below list provides college related resources that parents can access to familiarize yourself with the most relevant resources in USA.

  1. College Board: Offers resources on SAT prep, college searches, and financial aid.
  2. FAFSA: The official site to apply for federal financial aid.
  3. U.S. News & World Report – Education: Provides college rankings and articles on higher education.
  4. ACT: Everything you need to know about the ACT test.

The books below are carefully selected because each provides a parent friendly guide to college application. These are resources I am using to figure out my kids college journey.

Beyond the GPA: How to Give Your Student an Edge with College Admissions

A comprehensive guide to use in 2023. This source provides step by step guide for parents to understand and navigate the college application process.

Paying for College, 2024: Everything You Need to Maximize Financial Aid and Afford College (2024) (College Admissions Guides)

An essential guide for students and parents navigating the financial complexities of higher education in 2024. This comprehensive resource breaks down the myriad ways to fund a college education, from scholarships and grants to student loans. With up-to-date information on the latest changes in financial aid, practical tips on filling out the FAFSA, and strategies to reduce tuition costs, “Paying for College, 2024” aims to make the dream of higher education attainable without breaking the bank. A must-read for anyone concerned about the rising costs of college and how to manage them effectively.

Fiske Guide to Colleges 2024

An annually updated guide, the “Fiske Guide to Colleges” offers a detailed look into more than 300 colleges and universities in the U.S. With honest assessments of each institution’s academics, social life, and quality of student life, this guide has become a staple for students and parents during the college search process.

The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price

This comprehensive guide offers practical insights into the college search process. O’Shaughnessy delves into ways parents and students can find schools that best fit academically, socially, and financially. The book also provides strategies on how to obtain the best financial aid packages and reduce college costs.

In conclusion, while the American college planning process might seem daunting initially, you can ensure a smooth transition for your child with the right resources and timely planning. Embrace the journey, and remember, every step is a learning opportunity!

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